Biography of a novel

Mohamed Shoair, Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

Mohamed Shoair traces the history of one of Naguib Mahfouz’s most censored novels, revealing its original, unexpurgated text for the first time

Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz



Love in the Rain (1973) was the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels to be written after the Naksa (as Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 War with Israel was euphemistically referred to), and he called it “a bird with a broken wing”. This was his way of describing the censorship to which it was subjected, which resulted in three different versions of the same book. 

Mahfouz remembered the weeks following the Naksa as a difficult time. “I would walk around the streets talking to myself,” he said. It was “a brain concussion”, “a strike that aborted a whole pyramid of dreams and wishes”, worse than military defeat as such. He almost stopped writing as a result, and took to a form of automatic writing – sitting at his desk without plans or prior ideas – to get past the crisis. It took him 10 months to publish a short story, “The Conjurer Grabbed the Plate” (Al-Ahram, 5 April, 1968). 

In this and other stories from that period, Mahfouz’s world changed and so did his modes of expression. These were absurdist stories with blurred settings in deconstructed worlds and characters who speak as though in a trance. Many criticised him at the time for the obscurity and alleged meaninglessness of those stories, to which he responded by saying that he was presenting “a picture of our life after the Naksa” where “the world around us lost its coherence and meanings and we ended up in a state of pain and doubt. The absurdist style was the best artistic way to express this state.”

At the time the Gamal Abdel-Nasser regime relaxed its iron grip on media, relaxing censorship on films in an attempt to absorb popular anger, but literature was not so lucky. In fact the opposite happened with printed matter. Until that moment, and since 1959, Mahfouz had serialised his fiction in Al-Ahram despite all that it contained in the way of explicit criticism of the Nasserist powers that be. 

Novels like The Thief and the Dogs (1962), Chitchat on the Nile (1965) and Miramar (1966) focused on the discontents of Nasserist discourse and predicted the regime’s political suicide, but the censors never touched them. Following the Naksa, by contrast, Mahfouz was unable to publish most of his writings in Al-Ahram, and what he did publish in Al-Ahram was heavily cut. To justify not publishing them, the then editor-in-chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal called them “inferior art”, a position on which Al-Ahram’s then literary editor the critic Louis Awad, an erudite Anglophile, unjustly concurred. In a lecture published in Al-Adab magazine in November 1972, Awad said that Heikal had told him that it would be permissible for such oppositional stories to appear in publications with a distribution of 10,000 copies if they appeared in Al-Ahram “then they would take on a different significance”. Yet speaking to Youssef Al-Qaid much later, Heikal denied seeing those stories in the first place. 

The critic and journalist Ragaa Al-Naqqash published some of the material Al-Ahram turned down in Al-Hilal magazine, which he then edited, and when he moved to Al-Idhaa wal Telefizion magazine, he used it to serialise Mahfouz’s book Mirrors (1972), of which Awad says in the same lecture that it is “neither a novel nor a short story. It is simply his opinion of a number of figures who had caught the attention of the world of literature and culture and politics in the last 20 years, and it too was a very inferior attempt.” 

It was also Al-Naqqash who serialised Love in the Rain, this time in Al-Shabab magazine, where Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, the minister of youth at that time, was the chairman of the board. (As for Karnak Café [1974], perhaps his most oppositional novel ever, Mahfouz didn’t even attempt to serialise it but published it as a book right away.)


Mahfouz often spoke of the difficulties of publishing at that time, and he always placed Love in the Rain and Karnak Café together. In his 1988 book From Aesthetics to the Nobel Prize, critic Ghali Shoukri quotes him as saying: “You might remember the story of Love in the Rain, and how there are three versions of it. [The book censors] cut out the part about the frontier completely, and I nearly refused to publish it in book form but then the publisher said in that case I would have to cover the printing costs.” 

For his part Ghali remembers: “The day Love in the Rain appeared at the beginning of the 1970s, Naguib shared a surprising literary secret with me, that when he was done with Mirrors for some reason three characters remained in his memory unwritten, and through them he began to weave the story of Love in the Rain. Had he completed Mirrors that novel would not have been written. At that time Al-Ahram refused to publish Love in the Rain, so Naguib Mahfouz gave it to a magazine named Al-Shabab while at the same time it was at the print shop. And so the novel appeared serialised in Al-Shabab magazine in a form different from the book, and each of these was different from the original text which was not published in its entirety until 1983.” 

Shoukri told the same story in his introduction to an earlier book, The Insider: A Study in the Literature of Naguib Mahfouz (1982), concluding, “whoever wants history to record freedom of expression at that time has to compare Love in the Rain as it was published in Al-Shabab magazine and Love in the Rain as it was published in a book, and then Naguib Mahfouz’s own Love in the Rain.”

Speaking to Al-Naqqash in the latter’s book Naguib Mahfouz: Pages from his Journals (1998), on the other hand Mahfouz himself recalls, “all these [previous] troubles are as nothing compared to what happened after the Naksa. Those didn’t concern me alone, but all Egypt’s men of letters endured them. The bulk of my suffering took place with the Al-Ahram administration. Ustaz Heikal refused to publish Mirrors, and so you published it in Al-Idhaa wal Telefizion, and, when he became the editor-in-chief of Al- Ahram, Ustaz Ahmed Bahaeddin refused to publish Love in the Rain, and you published it in Al-Shabab after the censors cut many things out of it. As for Karnak Café, it was the novel I had the most trouble publishing. I gave it to Ustaz Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and after he read it he thought it was a direct attack on the Nasser era, so he went to the office of the man of letters Tawfik Al-Hakim to complain to him about me. Al-Hakim recounted to me Heikal’s deprecation of what was in it. He said to him, ‘Is this acceptable? Here, see what Naguib has sent me!’”

Mahfouz goes on to recount how, when he sent Karnak Café to his publisher Abdel-Hamid Gouda Al-Sahhar, the system in place was that, after the publisher printed the book he sent it to the censors. The censor at the time was Talaat Khaled, who spoke to Mahfouz on an almost daily basis with a request to cut a paragraph or review an opinion. When the novel was printed he felt it had been deformed, and he asked Al-Sahhar to stop distributing it, but the latter persuaded him that this would mean a huge financial loss. 

Love in the Rain and Karnak Café are in fact the only two of Mahfouz’s novels that appeared expurgated, and the author told Al-Naqqash he was sorry he did not possess the original manuscripts in order to publish them in their entirety. But – testifying to a degree of contradiction as well as confusion between the two novels and between Heikal and Bahaeddin, even in Mahfouz’s own statements through the years – in an earlier, 1974 interview to the Syrian magazine Al-Mawqif Al-Arabi, Mahfouz says only three pages in total were cut out of Karnak Café and it was otherwise unchanged. 


It was while searching for a copy of the Al-Shabab magazine issues in which the novel appears to compare with the book that Al-Naqqash’s widow Hania Omar that she found and eventually shared the original manuscript of Love in the Rain, which Mahfouz had deposited with Al-Naqqash. Considering the number of times Mahfouz reiterates the idea that he does not have the original manuscript, it was a real find.

The manuscript consists of 104 leaves of line foolscap paper, the kind Mahfouz always used. It is missing 25 pages making up Chapter 11 to Chapter 16. In Chapter 9 the page is headed with “Permit 1436”, which might mean that, when it was published in Al-Shabab, the censors only inspected it starting from Chapter 9. 

In Love in the Rain Mahfouz writes about contradiction and despair, describing an identity-less, fractured society held hostage to false morality. The characters are self-absorbed, “a stream of people colliding with one another from all directions and a medley of sounds coming from high and low—a raucous collage of all the colours of the rainbow” as the opening sentence puts it (in Nancy Roberts’ 2011 translation). Those themes are reflected in the structure of the novel, its language and characters. Mahfouz had not quite shed the absurdist influence, and so the plotting can seem illogical at times, and the behaviour and thoughts of the characters are sometimes governed by chance.

Narration recedes to make way for dialogue which Mahfouz deploys as a way to achieve a neutral tone, the kind of dispassion that he had always thought, making the narrator an unbiased conveyor of information. Dialogue becomes an arena for debate, and the phrases  each character utters reflect their individual consciousness, their social position and culture, rather than those of the author. This technique not only generated a kind of narrative objectivity but also enabled Mahfouz to protect himself from the wrath of political power. 

At one point, indeed, his fiction took the form of short plays that reflect dialogue as “the characteristic of that time period”, as Mahfouz told Mohamed Salmawy (according to the latter’s 2015 book, The Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz, published by Al-Ahram): “the dialogue of the human being with his surroundings, to try and understand what’s going on around him and how; and his dialogue with himself through diving into his own depths in the hope of finding the truth”. 


Dialogue had protected books like Chitchat on the Nile and Miramar from censorship but when it came to Love in the Rain the censor did not accept the logic of neutrality. Compared to the original manuscript, the greatest number of cuts and rewordings in the book version of the novel concern what the character named Hassan Hammouda says. They are statements that seamlessly reflect his position as the feudal heir of a family that was disinherited of its land by the July Revolution of 1952 (led by Nasser), a development that results in his father dying of a heart attack. 

“Do you know what it means to lose four thousand hectares in a single second,” he tells Mona Zahran, the character he hopes to marry. “Or to watch a father you’ve revered die of a heart attack?” That is why Hassan never conceals his glee at the Naksa, or his love of America and his intense hatred for Russia. Even in the English translation, this is how Hassan’s conversation with Mona goes:


“If they’d won the June war, what would people like us have done? Defeat, as evil as it is, isn’t without a blessing for those who suffered the defeat!” 


“And can we find happiness and an honourable life if we’re defeated by Israel?”

To this he had no reply.

In the original manuscript, it turns out, this is what Mahfouz had: 

“If they’d won the June War, those thick feet would’ve crushed us forever. Defeat, as evil as it is, isn’t without a blessing for those who suffered the defeat!” 

“And can we find happiness and an honourable life if we’re defeated by Israel?”

“I mean we have to enjoy human rights first to find the justification to defend them.”

As well as making Hassan unable to respond, placing him in a weaker position than Mahfouz intended, the censor also cuts the word “socialism” from what Hassan describes as “Nazism and fascism” and replaces an equivocal discussion of the role of the Soviet Union in protecting Egypt from defeat with a briefer affirmation of “the Russians’” reliability. (Even though Nasser had died in 1970 and his successor Anwar Al-Sadat would reverse the ideological orientation of what was still called “the revolution”, the change had not happened yet: Egypt was still a one-party socialist state more loyal to the Soviet Union than to the US.)

Another character whose dialogue was meddled with is Ibrahim Abdu, who is conscripted in the army right after he graduates from university and is seriously disturbed by the gulf that separates army personnel from the people. 

On his breaks in Cairo he feels as though he has emerged out of a dungeon into a babel of activity, but the scowl never departs his face. During one such visit he expresses his disappointment in the people’s indifference to the plight of the army in the desert to his sister Aliyat, and when she protests that the war is all people ever talk about, in the original he responds, “From jokes to laughs and sometimes what is worse.” The published version reads simply, “That’s not enough…” This causes confusion in the text, making it unclear which of the two characters speaks which lines.

There are many more examples of this. 


I had found the original manuscript but I still hadn’t located the relevant Al-Shabab issues, no copies of which were kept in either Dar Al-Kotob or the Ministry of Youth, the latter being its publisher. In the process of looking, however, it turned out that – contrary to accepted opinion – the magazine had printed only a third of the novel because, even though a fifth issue was advertised, Al-Shabab itself was discontinued after the fourth issue. 

Initially a weekly political bulletin published by the Socialist Youth Organisation and targeting young Egyptians abroad, by December 1966 it had evolved into a tabloid newspaper called Arab Youth, and it continued till Sadat’s 1971 “Corrective Revolution” (in which the new president divested Nasser’s men of what power they had). When Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd became youth minister in 1972, he decided to resume its publication as a magazine and set up a board of advisers including Ahmed Bahaeddin. They nominated Ragaa Al-Naqqash for the task of editing it.

It was through Bahaeddin that the novel arrived at Al-Shabab. He had been at Dar Al-Hilal when Al-Sadat appointed him chairman of the board of Rose AlYoussef without consulting with him – a decision he contested, refusing to accept the post and moving to Al-Ahram on Heikal’s invitation instead. He became the editor of the Friday issue, and that is how he came to read Mahfouz’s novel, which he admired. Bahaeddin told Mahfouz it would be difficult to publish it in Al-Ahram and offered to take it to Al-Shabab instead. 

In the first three instalments, the novel was published exactly as Mahfouz wrote it, but in the fourth instalment – published on 23 January 1973 – the censors made two minor changes. But the irony was that the entire issue was banned and the magazine subsequently discontinued. The reason had nothing to do with Mahfouz, however. 

As Judge Maher Sami – a member of the board of advisers – explained to me, the issue was devoted to Nasser on the occasion of what would have been his 55th birthday (on 18 January), but due to a printing issue Nasser’s face on the cover appeared with black splotches all over it. The Youth Organisation members were outraged, resulting in Al-Naqqash resigning and the magazine coming to a stop for the second time. 


More than a decade earlier, Mahfouz himself had been at the opposite side of the fence, having become the head censor in 1959. In his journals, recorded by Al-Naqqash, he says that “censorship as I understood it is not artistic and does not affect art or its value.” Its function, rather, is to protect “the state’s higher policy”, prevent “sectarian sedition” and safeguard “public morality”. He affirms, “I did not for a moment feel that I was betraying myself as a man of letters or an artist.”

In the case of Love in the Rain, however, censorship was rather a matter of the individual censor’s whims, his own criteria and taste. The journalism censor, for example, passed everything the books censor took issue with, and the sentences that were cut were different in each case. With the exception of an error in the title in the first edition – it read Hobb taht al-matar instead of Al-hobb taht al-matar – the text of the novel remained unchanged in each subsequent edition, which means that Ghali Shoukri was wrong to say that the novel was published in its entirety in 1983.

The characters in Mirrors make statements far worse for the regime than anything in the original Love in the Rain, and it is them that inspire its stories. But the censors did not stop at Mirrors and focused on Love in the Rain and Karnak Café, even though they appeared less than a year later. Censorial conditions grew worse in 1972: the Year of Fog, as it was sarcastically called after Al-Sadat declared 1971 the Year of Will, only to go on and say that, due to the Cold War and the India-Pakistan War, the global situation was still too foggy for the kind of resolute action he had had in mind. 

Students staged huge protests then demanding that Al-Sadat should wage war to free Sinai of the Israeli occupation. Many student activists were arrested, and intellectuals tried to organise a conference in solidarity with them at the Press Syndicate and were prevented by security forces. A statement was drafted in response that Al- Ahram refused to publish. On 8 January 1973, over 100 high-profile intellectuals including Bahaeddin and Awad as well as Mahfouz signed a statement drafted by Al-Hakim in solidarity with the angry students, calling for freedom of expression and debate, that was published in the Lebanese Al-Anwar newspaper.

This angered Al-Sadat, who transferred many figures including Awad and Bahaeddin from Al-Ahram to the Information Service. The regime announced it would be taking no action against Al-Hakim and Mahfouz, but in reality Mahfouz was banned from writing, and his work in the cinema, the radio and television from being broadcast until the October War of 1973 – which Egypt won. 

According to Al-Naqqash’s book, what pained Mahfouz most at that time were the attacks to which writers he had considered friends subjected him in the press, to carry favour with the powers that be. But perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, within two years, Love in the Rain was made into a successful film written by Mamdouh Al-Laithi, directed by Hussein Kamal and starring Mervat Amin, Magda Al-Khatib, Emad Hamdi, Ahmed Ramzi, Hayat Qandil, Adel Adham, and Samira Mohsen. 

Like Karnak Café film, it alters the ending of the novel. Instead of the murder with which the novel ends, the film of Love in the Rain ends with news of the Egyptian troops overrunning the Israeli forces’ Bar Lev Line – previously thought impenetrable – and breaking into Sinai once again. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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